Why Is The Populist Right Winning The 21st Century?

The left has, once again, lost a must-win election. The wholly unsurprising victory of Donald Trump and his installation in the White House is a cataclysm decades in the making. Trump himself probably does not have a fixed political ideology, but the populist right vote he represents has proven strong enough to seize power and challenge the social and economic consensus that emerged after the Second World War ended. Much type has been spent describing this resurgence of nationalist vitriol as a sign of how the economic Orthodoxy of our age has failed. Yet this is a battle over identity, culture and values as much as economic systems.

As ever, the right needs an economic crisis, hence Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and others. Globalization has created millions of ‘left behind’ voters who are disenfranchised from the liberal democracies that represent them. This is why it cannot do to dismiss all those who vote for right-wing parties as crackpots and racists: some undoubtedly fit such a description, but the struggles of many, rooted in reality and experience, do not necessarily lead them to these conclusions. In any event it is not just the extreme right but huge numbers of ordinary fed-up voters looking askance for solutions – one must remember many white people who voted Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted Trump in 2016. The realities of agency work, economic insecurity and lack of in-work benefits has created a global crisis of confidence in the status quo, and any insurgency that threatens it – be it Trump, Brexit or something else – proves attractive.

But, as important as this is, it is not merely a working-class revolt. In fact, the ‘working class’, never a homogenous group, has had its identity hijacked by forces on the populist right that rely on a cross class appeal. Like Mussolini in the 1920s, the right seeks to break down traditional class ties and replace it with something different. Economic realities are the same for minorities that right-wing groups direct their ire towards: in the US poor Black and Hispanic voters have borne the brunt of relative decline. Poverty alone is an inadequate explanation: many rich people voted Trump – more than voted for Hillary Clinton – and UKIP started out as a protest from disaffected but well-heeled Tory rightists. Large numbers of relatively wealthy people will be voting Le Pen in the next French election, inspired by opposition to globalism and the EU. One must therefore identify migration, the defining political challenge of our age, as a key factor, and in particular the challenges it poses to the construction of national identity. The alien ‘other’ that threatens the national community has a number of forms: in the UK, it can be anything from refugees fleeing persecution, EU nationals threatening jobs, or ISIS supporters. Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others will be using these issues and more.

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